Classroom recomposition: Agencies, OFSTED, and academies

Classroom recomposition: Agencies, OFSTED, and academies

A short blog entry looking at the plight of a particular group of agency workers in a prominent London academy.

In London there is a local authority which claims to be the richest in Europe. Despite this, one-third of children in the borough live below the poverty line. In contrast, half of school age children in the locality are privately educated. This means that students left in the state system are overwhelmingly from the local estates. A sizeable percentage of them come from recently settled immigrant families. It is against this backdrop that this particular council began a program which has seen nearly all of its comprehensive secondary schools converted into academies.

Mike worked at one of those academies. Sponsored by a wealthy executive and specialising in “international business and enterprise”, the school boasts of “a strong commitment to education and business in the area”. A link to the Youth Enterprise Program is displayed prominently on the school's website—which also offers the building out for “corporate hire”.

Having recently completed university, Mike was hired as a graduate support teacher. “My first impression of the place was pretty good. The pay wasn't great, only sixty pounds a day, but that's pretty standard for agency work in a school. But the hours were reasonable and the job was rewarding.”

While Mike was critical of the academy model before beginning work there, the conditions were okay. He didn't feel the school environment was especially warm, but staff got along with each other.

When asked how the permanent staff related to the agency workers, Mike responds, “Well, there was no resentment or anything”. But there was no discussion of the implication of the academy's widespread use of agencies, either.

As far as Mike could tell there was no active union presence. “Although since I was only there a short time, I can't really say. I was never asked to join the union and, if there was a rep, no one told me.”

On November 30th, the day of the mass pension strike that brought out just about every union in the education sector, Mike's school was shut for students. “Management told the agency staff there'd be no point in us coming in” and, as far as he knows, none of them did. No permanent member of staff approached him to discuss the strike or ask him to participate. “If there was a picket line, I wasn’t told about it.”

The entirety of the student support—graduate teaching and learning support assistants—was comprised of about twenty staff, all from various agencies. Mike's contract was only secure on a month-to-month basis and there was never any talk of moving to a directly employed post. Yet, when management announced that all support staff agency workers would be let go, it still came a shock.

At the time, the official line was “finance”. The school was in debt and couldn't afford the luxury of so many support staff. So, after three months service and with only three weeks notice, agency staff were informed they'd be again entering the harsh world of the credit-crunch job market.

Shortly after, the rumours started.

The first went like this: when Mike and his co-workers had been hired in November, the academy thought it'd be facing an OFSTED inspection that year. However, it was later discovered the school would be spared the pleasure of having the inspectors round. Management's original plan to move from “satisfactory” to “good” by beefing up support staff no longer applied.

The second rumour involved the new EU agency worker directive that came into effect October of last year. The new rules state, in short, that after twelve weeks of continuous employment agency workers' pay and conditions must be the same as if they were directly employed. Mike and his co-workers were let go after eleven weeks. Since then, there's been talk of the same positions again becoming available, presumably on the same inferior contracts.

Citing her insecure contract Mike says his dismissal “didn’t come as a total surprise”, but that the entire experience has left him “bitter” and even more critical of academies.

“I was lucky, I found work quickly”, although it was another agency position, this time in a state school. “But for other people, especially those in the special needs department, they had more invested in the job. It's what they wanted to be doing long-term.”

And how were the students affected by this mass exodus? Students who get learning support tend to develop a close bond with their support teachers. These are often those most vulnerable in the education system and trust does not often come easy.

“The students were the main reason I didn’t want to go”, says Mike. Even in three months they’d developed a strong attachment to him. Before he left, students made cards expressing their sadness that he’d be leaving.

In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter why Mike and his co-workers were sacked. The combination of factors—OFSTED (and the phenomenon of the “phantom OFSTED” familiar to any education worker), agency contracts, and work at an academy—left the support staff at Mike's school in appallingly precarious employment.

No clear explanation was ever given for the mass dismissal and that's the entire point: management didn't need to. And that's exactly why employers use agency workers in the first place.

Posted By

Chilli Sauce
Feb 15 2012 10:45


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Feb 15 2012 10:59

That's a messed up story, that sucks for the agency workers.

On a sub editing note, as this article is about the use of agency staff I have added the casualisation tag.

(BTW, in a couple of sentences you refer to Mike as "her")

Chilli Sauce
Feb 15 2012 12:00

Libcom front page! I've hit the big time now laugh out loud

See Steven I was trying to undermine gender norms through subverting the language, man wink Edited now, thanks.

Feb 15 2012 12:21

Good article. These stories are really important and voices like Mike's need to be heard. I've an article ion the pipelines about this 'never-ending Ofsted' largely inspired by Mark Fisher's take on Ofsted in Capitalist Realism, which was painfully accurate.

Feb 15 2012 23:45

This is a tragedy for the vulnerable children needing support, much more than for the staff giving it.

Feb 16 2012 01:00

What an unhelpful comment. How is it 'much more'?
It's a disgusting attack on the conditions of both staff and students - workers out of a job, students without support.

If you want to start quantifying their suffering in some sort of hierarchy of victimhood you're way off the mark.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 16 2012 13:43

Good conditions, a living wage, and steady employment for employees = a good education for children. Simple as.

Feb 16 2012 15:26
“Good conditions, a living wage, and steady employment for employees = a good education for children. Simple as.”

Have to disagree with you there, CS. I spent 33 years as a teacher – by the time I left, conditions and pay were (relatively) ok, and I sure had steady employment. But this didn’t translate into anything like “a good education for children.” Education under capitalism serves to reinforce class rule; working class kids learn both capitalist discipline and their place in the pecking order, and have any sense of enquiry and pleasure in learning slowly squeezed out of them. We should support teachers in their attempts to defend their wages and conditions, but should also be clear that what’s happening today (academies, privatisation, temporary contracts etc) is about making a shitty system even shittier, rather than being the end of something defensible as the unions and leftists claim.

Chilli Sauce
Feb 16 2012 16:57

Yes, fair point, and I do agree with your analysis (and I'd hope that would come out in the article itself). It's just that if the discussion is on the level of "But what about the kidz!11!", the link between working conditions and the quality of education (as limited as a such a concept is under capitalism) has to be stressed.

Feb 16 2012 17:36

Yup, you make a fair point too.